'The Moon Is Almost Full': Chana Bloch's poignant struggle with sarcoma

Bloch's battle with the aggressive sarcoma she lived with in her final years is the subject of The Moon Is Almost Full, her posthumously published collection.

Chana Bloch (1940-2017) in the 2011 documentary, Traduire (photo credit: UCB)
Chana Bloch (1940-2017) in the 2011 documentary, Traduire
(photo credit: UCB)
We’re too old to pray
Let me not die.
Even the chairs that outlive us
Won’t last.
Chana Bloch died on May 19, 2017. She was 77. Her battle with the aggressive sarcoma she lived with in her final years – and described in her poems with irony, humor, reverie, history and inevitability – is the subject of The Moon Is Almost Full, her posthumously published collection.
Death was never a stranger to Bloch’s work. Secrets of The Tribe (1980), the first of her six volumes, was anchored by the death of her father, also as a result of cancer.
What does a daughter say
to the bones/ that won’t answer
Thank you to the nice man?
In Blood Honey, published long after Secrets, homage is paid to the cemetery flowers the deer eat and to Amichai Kronfeld, husband of her partner in translation, Chana Kronfeld.
Held without trial,
our friend was sentenced
brain tumor, malignant.
As always in a Bloch death poem, death dines with life. Kronfeld sits over brunch remembering the summer he packed blood oranges, drinking the juice in the factory fresh from the tap. He is scooping sweetness from the belly of death. Across from the cemetery and the devoured flowers of the recently deceased stands Fat Apples Restaurant, she tells us.
The metaphor is given new life with her impending death. The following stanzas are from “Sunday at the Vivarium:”
The butterfly dines on nectar of lily
but looks to urine and dung
for its daily salt. “Life,”
says the docent, “eats what it eats.
What it wants is more life.”
Like the cells multiplying inside me,
the cells with an appetite
for the body’s sugars,
the ones that light up on the scan.
In the humid rain forest atrium
I feel a chill.
SHE SPOKE once of how different these poems were, for instance, from those in Mrs. Dumpty (1998), her book about the death of her marriage to her first husband, a scholar afflicted by mental illness.
“They were not written in retrospect, but from inside out, minute by minute. What’s happening now? What thoughts come to the surface? There is a poem called “White Heat” (not included in this volume) where I talk about watching the lightning in the sky. And I say, ‘I want to see what can kill me.’”
The poems in Moon pin the reader to an unforgiving wall of immediacy. “Inside Out” is one example.
It is either serious or it isn’t.
The indeterminate mass, 14.8 cm long,
is either a cyst or a tumor.
If a tumor either benign or malignant.
If malignant, either slow-growing
or aggressive, in which case
they may contain it. If not,
no one else will recall
this unseasonable day of waiting
as you did, from the inside out
Best known as Yehuda Amichai’s translator, Bloch spent time with the iconic poet in Jerusalem during his final illness, when she and Kronfeld were translating Open Closed Open, his final volume. It contains the poem, “The Precision of Pain,” a favorite of hers, which Bloch often read at readings.
Even those who haven’t learned to read or write are precise:
This one’s a throbbing pain, that one’s a wrenching pain.
This one gnaws, that one burns, this is a sharp pain,
and that a dull one. Right here. Precisely here,
yes, yes.
With quieter humor, but from the same existential place as Amichai’s, Bloch writes:
Specimen cups and vials
take my measure
in cc’s of crimson gold,
my body’s royal colors.
Bloch does not, of course, carry into her poetry, as Amichai did, the intimate language of a country, where wars, pre-wars and post-wars serve as markers of people’s life cycles. She was not a well-known poet in America, though she always had admirers among her fellow poets. But the humanism and irony that she shared with Amichai enabled her voice to penetrate the long spine of suffering in its many forms:
Yes. He’s home again.
I shake the dry pod of my heart
and pray for a twitch of feeling,
a little rattle of love.
His fist pounding my shoulder
demands absolution.
I’m allowed two sentences:
You’re fine.
You’re going to be fine.
(“The Collector” from Mrs. Dumpty)
Normally, the elegy hurls its pained light into the darkness of a loved one’s death. Edward Hirsch and William Stafford wrote elegies to their sons; Lucille Clifton and Ruth Stone to their mothers. Li-Young Lee is one of the many poets to have written an elegy to his father. Bloch is one of the rare poets to offer to posterity a book of pre-elegies for herself.
What does it mean to be alive in a dying body? To want more life, more time to write? To undergo more and more chemo only to have the tumors return, hopes dashed? Dancing with life along the lip of the grave.
Bloch’s final poems in their tone and spareness allow solitude, the uninvited guest, free rein among her lines. Her voice, as always, is conversational. She is always speaking directly to you about what matters to her. A Bloch poem enters you like the words of a friend, with the same immediacy and adhesive quality. But in Moon, the friend sometimes turns her head away to look deeply inward at her rapidly accumulating depletion.
Day goes on collecting
grains of fatigue
one o’ clock
two o’ clock
that lodge in the tissue,
sleeper cells
three o’ clock
growing secretly.
But her mood of defeat, underscored by the poem’s apt title, “Doing Time,” is an anomaly. So too, in its vertical breakthrough, is “Cancer War,” with its assertion:
A joy so acute it startles me.
Here on this mountain pass
where dangers multiply.
Most of her poems paddle between highs and lows, in the narrows of minutely observed unfolding. In finality, she remains wedded to her cherished clarity.
Whether describing the loss of her precious thicket of hair (my crest, my crown), or the doctor in his Hawaiian shirt who says he is not betting for or against her survival (Let him go. This is my day’s last race), she will not let the summing up of her fading life lapse into carelessness.
Bloch once mischievously contemplated titling her book Dying for Dummies. (A poem by that name, about the hierarchy of the dying, appears in Moon.) By any name, the poet has left us with a book deserving of a long life.
The Moon Is Almost Full
Chana Bloch
Autumn House
88 pages